“And here they are, here they are again”! Ted Hughes thrills to the swifts when they return to these shores in May. These are the first birds in a series of waves of swifts, arriving at different times according to their age and purpose. Breeders get here first, speeding back to reclaim their nests, meet up with their mates and get down to the serious business of raising a brood together. But swifts don’t generally breed until they are at least four years old (the average lifespan of a swift is seven or eight) so why do younger birds also make the 5,000-mile journey from Africa?
These birds have been flying without cease ever since the moment they launched into the air from the safe, dark nest in which they hatched. From there they straightaway headed south for Africa: snapping up airborne insects, sipping water from lakes on the wing, preening their feathers in elegant aerial manoeuvres and spiralling up into the sky at dusk to sleep and orient themselves. Flying is simply what a swift does, all of the time, unless grounded by misfortune - most likely in the shape of persistent, torrential rain. However, their return to the part of the world in which they hatched is purposeful.
They come to seek a nest and a mate, and to establish their place within the loose, colonial territories that swifts form during the breeding season. Finding a nesting hole takes time but they have an instinct for suitable places and are often attracted by calls from their own kind. Swifts prefer to nest high up, under the eaves of buildings or in crevices in the masonry, searching for an entrance hole to a hidden space where they can make their dish-like nest of feathers, tree seeds and other materials blown up into the air and glued together with saliva.